Ukraine crisis: Inside pro-Russia militia training camp
- 19 May 2014
- From the section Europe
An armed militia group has given the BBC exclusive access to its training camp in east Ukraine, where recruits are preparing to fight the country's army. Panorama has followed the brigade's commander since the conflict began - now he has gathered a force of more than 100 men.
In a hidden clearing in woods close to the Russian border, men prepare for combat. Until a few days ago, most of them had ordinary jobs - a supermarket worker, a miner, a labourer.
Even their commander, Alexei Mozgovoi, is new to this, he used to run a construction company but is now ready to lead his men into battle against what he sees as the illegal government in Kiev.
"It is already a state of civil war. The civil war began after the first shots in Slavyansk, and now it's in full swing. The east of Ukraine is moving steadily towards Russia, and that's a fact," he said.
The spark for their action was February's revolution in the capital which they believe has imposed an illegal pro-European government which does not serve them.
The plan is that when these men leave here, they will form new armed groups, until each town in east Ukraine has its own militia. Their take on this conflict is the mirror image of many in the West, for them, it is the Ukrainian army who are the aggressors.
As one of the militiamen, Sergei told us: "They're bandits and they call us separatists, they're threatening us with life imprisonment. So far as we are concerned, they are war criminals and face a death sentence."
Another one, Viktor added: "My family are proud of me because they know I'm here to offer them and other families protection and security."
The men train together, and live together and they are flying the flag of one of Russia's main political parties - the LDPR.
Panorama first met Alexei in March when he was trying to drum up support for anti-Kiev protests. The turnout was small and there was little sign of the chaos to come.
"You won't believe it. I used to live and work just like everyone else. I'm not hungry for power, I don't want power. I want law and order and for the people to be heard," he told us.
He took us to a derelict armaments factory that used to provide thousands of jobs locally and which he said partly explained why he wanted closer links to Russia.
He told us: "We have given everything away - from nuclear weapons to factories. Russia understands that if you want peace, prepare for war."
'These are radicals'
We also filmed him as he watched protesters take the first building in his home town of Lughansk, the regional headquarters of the Ukrainian security services. It contained weapons which were now in the hands of the protesters. He did not approve of their action.
"These are radicals just interested in seizing a building, there's nothing constructive," he says. "Ok, they're seized a building, but where does this take us now?" he said.
The next time we met Alexei was when he had just returned from meetings with officials in Moscow, just as the West was accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of stoking ethnic tensions in the region.
While refusing to go into details, he told us he met the leaders of two of the major Russian parties in parliament- Sergei Mironov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
He and his followers were now armed and in military uniforms, but he was evasive when asked who had supplied their weapons.
"Barack Obama. Barack Obama gave us the weapons through his politics. If he stayed at home and ran his own country and didn't poke his nose into others, there wouldn't be any weapons - not in Syria, not in Libya, and not here," said Alexei.
And he was equally evasive when asked what had been discussed in Moscow and who with. He told us "Why are you only interested in asking about my trip to Moscow? We're one people. Who am I to go to if not my brother? Who should I ask advice for if not my relatives?"
There is a serious point in what he says: US and Europe's support for the government in Kiev has inflamed opinion in eastern Ukraine. And many who began as moderates, including Alexei himself, will no longer settle merely for a split from Kiev - they are preparing to fight to be part of the Russian Federation.
We also filmed Alexei voting in the referendum which took place in the region on 11 May - surrounded by his new armed bodyguards.
The separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk said 89% and 96% respectively voted in favour of "self-rule" in the referendums, held a fortnight before Ukraine's presidential elections. Ukraine, the EU and US have declared the referendums illegal but Russia says the results should be "implemented".
National elections are scheduled for next Sunday. Whoever wins will inherit a divided country, with entire towns out of Kiev's control and many in no mood for compromise.
Panorama - Ukraine: Behind the Balaclavas on BBC One on 19 May at 20:30 BST.